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Carlo Ratti

21st of February 2014, 0 comments, category: Innovation Leaders

by Maria Serra, Onclaude Founder

Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT's Senseable City Lab explains to us why smart cities should focus our projects on people, rather then on technology, and why we should think more about the society we want to create. He also gives some interesting insights on the Future Food District Pavillion he's curating for Milan Expo 2015. Food for thoughts!

1Cities are becoming smarter and, as you often say, they are finally starting to “speak back” to us. Being smart doesn’t necessarily mean being “sensible” though. What about their level of empathy? 

We prefer to say, in fact, that city are becoming “Senseable”. This word has a double implication, it means “able to sense” and "sensible". Senseable Cities are Smart Cities, they are able to communicate with us and to provide us information and data. But they are also empathic, because they work with and in function of citizens. We believe in a more ground-up approach to create smarter cities in which people become the agents of change. We always have to focus our projects on people, rather that technology. 

The very idea of a smart city runs parallel to ‘ambient intelligence’ — the dissemination of ubiquitous electronic systems in our living environments, allowing them to sense and respond to people. That fluid sensing and actuation is the logical conclusion of the liberation of computing: from mainframe solidity to desktop fixity, from laptop mobility to handheld ubiquity, to a final ephemerality as computing disappears into the environment and into humans themselves with development of wearable computers. 

Smart cities are enabled by the atomization of technology, ushering an age when the physical world is indistinguishable from its digital overlay. The key mechanism behind ambient intelligence, then, is ‘sensing’ — the ability to measure what happens around us and to respond dynamically. New means of sensing are suffusing every aspect of urban space, revealing its visible and invisible dimensions: we are learning more about our cities so that they can learn about us. As people talk, text, and browse, data collected from telecommunication networks is capturing urban flows in real time and crystallizing them as Google’s traffic congestion maps. 

2 Digital passivity is emerging as a quite unexpected aspect of our hyper-connected society. What are your views on this issue?

I am not sure that the issue is technology - it's about the society we want to create. I believe that the discussion about data ownership and access is one of the most important ones - we should have it all together. We want to contribute to it and a few months ago we organized BIG DATA OR BAD DATA — an initiative by the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — kicked off with a panel between Noam Chomsky, professor and activist, and Barton Gellman, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and publisher of Edward Snowden’s leaks in the Washington Post. The discussion continued in an open, self-organizing way, involving thought leaders from academia, industry, government and privacy rights groups.

3 You’re curating the Future Food District Pavillion for Milan Expo 2015. What are the biggest challenges that food producers and retailers will face in the future?

Producers and retailers should be interested in a better interaction with consumers. In our District we have been asked to curate a pavilion which contains a Supermarket. This pavilion is dedicated to the interaction between visitors and the food distribution chain. The goal is to know more about our products in order to make better choices. Also, today's availability of data on products and producers allows us new sharing models - think about a supermarket similar to an exchange area, where everyone can be both seller and buyer. 

Carlo Ratti, an architect and engineer by training, practices in Italy and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the Senseable City Lab. He graduated from the Politecnico di Torino and the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, and later earned his MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK. His Digital Water Pavilion at the 2008 World Expo was hailed by Time Magazine one of the ‘Best Inventions of the Year’. Fast Company named him as one of the '50 Most Influential Designers in America’ in 2011 and he was also featured in Wired Magazine’s ‘Smart List 2012: 50 people who will change the world’. In 2012 Carlo was selected with his design office as one of the top three young architects for the Premio Fondazione Renzo Piano.

The Italian Minister of Culture also named Carlo as a member of the Italian Design Council - an advisory board to the Italian Government that includes 25 leaders of design in Italy. He is currently serving as a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council for Urban Management and is a curator for the Future Food District Pavilion for Expo 2015 in Milan.

Cover picture by Lars Krüger, lumivere.com.

Watch a video about the One Country, Two lungs project, a recent collaboration between MIT Senseable City Lab and LAAB design office in Hong Kong. A team of 'human probes' traverse Shenzhen and Hong-Kong to detect urban air pollution:


The startup Superpedestrian has recently brought to the market one of MIT Senseable City Lab's most innovative project, the Copenhagen Wheel. Like a tracer running through the veins of the city, explains Carlo, networks of air quality sensors attached to bikes can help measure an individual’s exposure to pollution and draw a dynamic map of the urban air on a human scale. 


Even trash could become smarter. Watch a video about the Trash Track project, developed by MIT Senseable City Lab with the support of Waste Management, Qualcomm, Sprint, the Architecture League of New York, the City of Seattle and the Seattle Public Library. In this project, a deployment of geolocating tags attached to ordinary garbage, explains Carlo, could paint a surprising picture of the waste management system as trash is shipped throughout the country in a maze-like disposal process.


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